Hartley – polarising, but the only choice

Date published: December 17 2015

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Dylan Hartley being the favourite to become the next England captain would have drawn plenty of laughs when suggested back in May as his collection of weeks suspended crossed the one-year mark.

But a combination of events have now transpired to leave the Northampton hooker in pole position.

England lack immediate candidates adequately suited for the role, aside from Hartley and the incumbent Chris Robshaw, whose position is untenable when he isn't guaranteed of even retaining his place in the side.

Ben Youngs is one of England’s most experienced current players and a captain at Leicester, but few are carrying the torch for him.

Joe Launchbury appears too diminutive. Robshaw’s future with England almost certainly seems to be at blindside flanker, but without the captaincy after the World Cup exit and clear-out of England’s coaches.

Make no bones about it, Hartley’s disciplinary record is appalling. 54 weeks’ worth of bans, with eight of those at international level for biting Stephen Ferris in the 2012 Six Nations. The argument that the majority of those bans coming at club level should ease any worries about his temperament on the biggest stage doesn't exactly feel bulletproof.

What he does give England is the right kind of bite – an abrasiveness which they can turn to when the heat is on, the side’s major downfall in the Lancaster era, when they either appeared to lose their way under pressure or came up short with titles and big results on the line.

Appointing Hartley as his skipper could reward Jones if England emerge out of those kind of situations victorious. Alternatively it might burn him if his skipper is forced to spend more weeks suited up in the stands.

England have to have faith that Hartley has turned a corner. Now 29 and a father for the first time, he has had to handle missing a British & Irish Lions tour along with a Rugby World Cup because of misdemeanours. If not now, when?

Maro Itoje is the long-term answer for England, an U20 Championship winning captain who plays with the maturity of a forward far older than 21.

Jones cannot however make him the leader of a side on the rebound when he has no Test caps to his name. 2017 would be a different conversation.

Instead the new England boss appears ready to gamble on a polarising character who might just be the only immediate answer. Hartley as England captain certainly won’t be boring.

by Ben Coles

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